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March 3, 2015

Jefferson's Gray a forgotten baseball gem

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Posted: Friday, April 22, 2011 2:00 am | Updated: 12:50 pm, Fri Apr 22, 2011.

By George Von Benko, for the Greene County Messenger

Herald-Standard | 0 comments

Western Pennsylvania has a rich baseball history, with names like Stan Musial, Ken Griffey, Ken Griffey Jr. and Pat Mullin to name a few that immediately come to mind.

A forgotten gem is Dick Gray, who hails from Jefferson.

Gray played football and baseball and wrestled for Jefferson High School (now Jefferson-Morgan).

“Our football team when I was a junior and senior went about .500,” Gray recalled. “The wrestling team was mediocre and the baseball team wasn’t too bad.”

Gray remembered the rivalry with Carmichaels.

“We played against Carmichaels every year in football and baseball,” he said. “I had a real good friend in Mike Korcheck. His brother Steve played at George Washington and later played with the Washington Senators.”

Sandlot baseball was the incubator for Gray’s baseball skills.

“I played semi-pro with the Clarksville Merchants,” Gray recalled. “I played against Brownsville and Ed Roebuck was on the Brownsville team. There were quite a few players who came out of this area. It was a good brand of baseball; I would say it was as good as a Class B pro league. I learned quite a bit on the sandlots. I learned not to quit and keep trying.”

Gray graduated from Jefferson High School in June of 1949 and immediately started his professional baseball career.

“I signed with Brooklyn in 1949,” Gray reported. “I signed with Charlie Coles. He and I went to the same high school. He signed and then Rex Bowen of the Dodgers came over and I signed the same day. I was from a small town of about 800 or 900 people and I got on the train and traveled down to Vero Beach, Fla., and there were maybe 2,000 or 3,000 people and I thought that was a big city.”

Dodgertown at Vero Beach was an eye opener for the 18-year old Gray.

“It was a great place, it was fantastic,” Gray gushed. “All the teams were there, they had about six or seven ball fields. We ate in the same cafeteria as the big leaguers and it was just one big family. It was absolutely fantastic.”

Gray, an infielder who was assigned to the Sheboygan Indians of the Wisconsin State League, appeared in 124 games, had 11 home runs and hit for a .310 average. In 1951, he spent time with two clubs, playing 21 games for the Greenwood Dodgers and hitting at a .221 pace and appeared in 110 outings for the Valdosta Dodgers, where he hit .302 and led the league in runs scored with 118 and also played third base for the All-Star team.

“It wasn’t a bad start,” Gray remembered. “I started as a second baseman and I had one horrendous night one night and Joe Hauser, my manager, when I came to the ballpark the next day, he called me in and told me to go workout at third base and he said I wasn’t going to play second base any more. That’s how I became a third baseman. I wasn’t discouraged, what was staring me in the face was I would either go back to school or work in the coal mines and I wasn’t about to do that.”

“I had two pretty good years and then in 1952 I went to Miami and I only hit about .240. I wasn’t quite adjusted yet. It was a step up in competition, there’s quite a difference between Class D and Class B.”

He was called to serve in the military for two years (1953-54) during the Korean War.

“I did not go to Korea,” he stated. “I was fortunate and contracted pneumonia and I went to the hospital, the outfit that I was with finished their basic training and went to Korea. I stayed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and I played baseball there for two years. On our ball club in the service we had about six or seven guys that went on to play in the major leagues. Whitey Herzog was on our team. I really grew up a lot in those two years in the service.”

Gray arrived back in time for the 1955 season with the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League, appearing in 155 games and hitting at a .251 clip.

In 1956, he was back with Fort Worth where he hit .285 and busted 24 home runs, tied for the league lead by scoring 115 runs and played third for the All-Star team. In 1957, he would appear with the St. Paul Saints, hit .297 with 16 four baggers and again make the All-Star team.

“I felt pretty good about the way things were going,” he stated. “In 1957, I got my first contract and went to St. Paul. The Dodgers had a great farm system; they had 800 ballplayers and 26 farm clubs. You talk about Vero Beach; it was like a little army camp, but it was fantastic and there was a lot of competition. There was the Dodger Way from Mr. O’Malley right straight down to the lowest ballplayers. It was just one big family and you were taught how to play baseball the Dodger Way.”

Gray arrived in the majors after his big year with St. Paul in ‘57. He hit the first home run in Los Angeles team history on April 16 during a 13-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants at Seals Stadium. He also hit the first Dodger home run at the Los Angeles Coliseum on April 18 in a 6-5 victory over the Giants. Injuries limited Gray to just 58 games in 1958 and he batted .249 with nine home runs and 30 RBI.

“I was the first of about 36 third basemen who played for the Dodgers until Ron Cey took hold of the third base position for a decade starting in 1973,” Gray explained. “I hit the first home run in LA Dodger history and that was my 15 minutes of fame. I had forgotten about the home run at Seals Stadium, but the one at the Coliseum was off of Johnny Antonelli to put the Dodgers ahead 6-3. It was in the seventh inning and the count was 3-0 and he was just trying to throw a strike and I nailed it. The Dodgers held on to win 6-5.

“The Coliseum wasn’t a baseball field and a lot of guys just couldn’t get adjusted to that football field. Left field was only about 280 feet, but then you had an eighty foot fence and then in right center ... poor Duke Snider, he used to hit balls 450 feet and it was an out.”

Gray rubbed elbows with some great players with the Dodgers.

“It was great,” he opined. “It was Pee Wee Reese and Koufax and Drysdale and Snider, Gilliam, Hodges and Wally Moon, Erskine and Labine, it was great. I roomed with Ed Roebuck on a couple of road trips.

On June 15, 1959 Gray was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals for Chuck Essegian and Lloyd Merritt and departed the major leagues the following year after hitting .239 in 124 games overall.

“We got off to a pretty bad start in 1959,” Gray recalled. “I had options left in 1958 and they kept trying to find a winning combination and never did get out of it and they sent me down and brought me back and in ‘59 I had a terrible spring training and then they traded me. I was not the same player because of arm and leg injuries and I wasn’t going to play in St. Louis because of Ken Boyer. I was a utility guy and it was discouraging.”

On May 28, 1960, the Pittsburgh Pirates traded second baseman Julian Javier and pitcher Ed Bauta to the St. Louis Cardinals for pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell and Gray.

“It was a good trade for both teams,” Gray stated. “Mizell helped Pittsburgh win a pennant and Javier was a good ballplayer and helped the Cards for many years.”

Gray would spend 1961 and ‘62 with the Columbus Jets of the International League hitting .264 with 12 home runs the first year, but fell off to .249 and three homers in 1962 and decided to call it a career.

His major league totals for three years include a .239 batting average with 12 home runs and 41 RBI. His minor league stats show a good, solid career performance, he appeared in 1,196 contests, went to bat 4,275 times, delivered 1,173 base hits (including 96 home runs) for a .274 minor league career batting average and 622 RBI.

“I think the only regret I have is I wasn’t more intense playing the game of baseball,” Gray lamented. “I never did realize it was a business until I got out of it. I was always kind of a nice guy, but what I should have done was just pay more attention and get a lot better, because I was a better ballplayer than what the stats show.”

Gray, 79, resides in Anaheim, Calif., with his wife of 56 years Joanne. Gray retired in 1993 from the Buena Park School District maintenance department. The Grays have three daughters: Catherine, Stacy and Nancy. He was inducted into the Washington-Greene County Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

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